California History

Historic Facts & Overview of California History

Take a peek at California history. Discover an overview of California's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Nicknamed the "Golden State," California is the third largest state in area after Alaska and Texas. The discovery of gold and the immigration in 1849 of thousands of "forty-niners" in search of the precious metal helped California's admission into the Union in 1850. Today, California, land of the giant redwoods, has the highest population of any state in the nation and is America's principal agricultural state. It is also the home of Hollywood, the center of America's movie and television industry. Its capital is Sacramento and the state flower is the golden poppy.

Overview of California History and Heritage

California's history is unique. It has been shaped, in part, by its geography. California has four main regions. The temperate coastal region, the Central Valley, once an inland sea, the desert, and the mountain region. The imposing Sierra Nevadas caused California to develop in relative isolation from the rest of the nation. After Americans began to settle in California in large numbers during the nineteenth century, it would usually be weeks before news would arrive from the East.

Four flags have flown in earnest over California: Russia; Spain; Mexico; and the United States.

The Spanish & Russians in California

The first settlers to arrive in California after the Native Americans were Spanish, and later Mexican. Spaniard Hernando de Soto, in 1541, was among the early European explorers to visit the territory, but it was a Frenchman, Henri de Tonti, who in 1686 founded the first permanent white settlement - the Arkansas Post. Russia had some small settlements for the purpose of whaling and fur trapping in Northern California, but Russia didn't attempt to colonize the area except in very isolated areas. Spanish priests were sent to California to covert the Indians to Christianity. Spain hoped to make the California native population into good Spaniards, loyal to Spain. Spain was becoming alarmed that the Russians and English were encroaching on lands claimed by Spain.
The English

The fight for California began almost 500 years ago with Queen Elizabeth I. She sent Sir Francis Drake to harass and raid the Spanish galleons. England was beginning to realize the value of California. England did not want Spain claiming more land in the new world, upsetting the balance of power between the super powers of the time. Tensions were already high between Spain and England. Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. In order to accomplish the divorce, England severed ties with Catholicism and Henry had instituted protestantism as the State religion. Henry and Jane Seymore's son had assumed the throne after Henry's death and continued Henry's policies. But when Edward the IV died at the age of 16, Mary I came to the throne. She was the daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine. Her ties to both Spain and Catholicism were strong. Elizabeth was suspected of plotting to overthrow Mary and was imprisoned in the Tower. After "bloody Mary" died and Elizabeth I became monarch, the power struggle between catholics and protestants did not end. Eventually, Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed for treason. Mary was her greatest threat to the throne since Mary claimed it as her right by way of England's ties with the French throne. Even though Mary had abdicated her rights, she still remained a threat to Elizabeth since Spain and France could use Mary as a cause to move against England. With the death of Mary Queen of Scots, England had secured protestantism and Elizabeth's reign, but was short on allies. In order to build new European allies, England had to remain a power to be reckoned with. Spanish settlement along the west coast of North America could bolster Spanish power. This was the last thing England wanted.

California: The Mission Period

200 years after the superpowers of Spain and England first began to fight over California, Spain decided to send priests in significant numbers in order to start missions. Spain wanted the missions to serve as supply and trading posts for her galleons in addition to the purpose of converting the Indians. Spain knew she needed settlers to keep her tenuous hold on to these new lands. England had ceased to become a real threat since the American Colonists had driven England from much of the New World. England had left something just as dangerous in her stead; English culture. Though the United States was a hodgepodge of different nationalities, English culture was the overriding tie that bound these people together.

Spain couldn't find enough Spaniards willing to leave Spain for the New World, and her attempts to convert the Indians into Spaniards was failing. The settlers in New Spain, which would soon become Mexico, were beginning to pose a problem to the Spanish as well. Spain had made some of the same errors that the English had made with the Colonies. Spain forbade New Spain from trading with any other nation besides Spain, and Spanish settlers who were born in Spain were considered to be a higher class than pure Spanish born in New Spain. Even though New Spain had adopted the culture of Spain, the Spanish restrictions would soon drive Spain from the New World just as the English had been driven out.

The effect that the missions had on the native population was enormous. Many traditions were abandoned or forbidden. As attempts to convert the natives were unsuccessful, tensions between the Indians and the Spanish heightened. Eventually, the missions were used as a means to control the Native American population and the Indians were kept in virtual slavery at some of the missions depending on the disposition of the head priest. There were Indian uprisings and one of the missions was burned to the ground and all priests were killed.

Despite the negative effect that the missions eventually had on the Indians, they did learn to excel at Western crafts. They were taught European painting and music, among other things. Since the Indians were already excellent craftspeople, they learned these new skills quickly. The mission period lasted only about 60 years. The missions were left to decay and were eventually taken over by the new state. The earthquake of 1812 destroyed many of the missions in Southern California. The missions have since been reclaimed and rebuilt and have become important historical sites.

The 1971 Sylmar quake destroyed the San Fernando Mission for the second time. Even though the San Fernando Mission was destroyed by an earthquake twice, one original building remains intact. This is unusual, because after the missions were abandoned the roof tiles were taken. This left the adobe, which is only mud and straw, open to the elements. The only reason that this building remained intact was because it was used for other purposes after the mission period ended. It has only recently been open to tourists because it had to be reinforced to meet California earthquake standards. The inside of this building contains many historical treasures including a painting from fourteenth century Spain.

California: The Rancho Period

In addition to starting the missions to gain settlers, the Spanish King, and later the Mexican government, gave people land grants to start ranchos and encourage settlers. Eventually, ranchos were given to Anglo settlers to encourage loyalty to Spain and to discourage alliance with the United States. The Spanish policy of purchasing loyalty remains to the present time as can be seen by the attempt of Argentina to offer the Falkland citizens a large amount of money to ally themselves with Argentina rather than England. The Anglo settlers tended to accept the land but remain loyal to the United States.

Some of the ranchos lasted even beyond statehood. Descanso Gardens, in the city of La Canada, was donated to the state by descendants of the original grant holder. Even though Mexicans had positions of political power at the beginning of California's statehood, most of the California Mexicans, or Californios, lost their land soon after. Even so, the Californios played a large part in early California politics.

Early American Settlers in California

California had come from obscurity to statehood because of the Gold Rush which started in earnest in 1849. Even though California was now part of the United States, coming to California was no small feat. If settlers on wagon trains made it over the Rockies safely, they were often stopped by the hostile Sierra Nevadas. Winter comes early and savagely and many settlers lost their lives like the Donner party.

The most common method of travel for those that could afford the passage was by ship. Settlers would leave the East Coast and have to travel South all the way around the tip of South America. Since it is so close to the South Pole at that point, ships would have to skirt ice bergs. The only short cut was through the Straits of Magellan near the tip of the South American continent. This was often perilous since the straights were rocky and often stormy. The only other way to get to California was to get off the ship in Panama, cross the isthmus by land, and pick up a ship on the West coast of Panama that was headed North. Many travelers died of disease crossing the tropical isthmus.

The California Gold Rush

Prior to the Gold Rush, settlers very slowly filtered into California until 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. Suddenly, people from all over the world looking to strike it rich flooded through San Francisco. They travelled up the Sacramento River to the gold fields. The Gold Rush was devastating to the Native Americans in the area and depleted many natural resources. What is now San Francisco was once a redwood forest. Whole native tribes were scattered or destroyed. In some areas there were bounties on Indians. The California tribes still have a rich culture and heritage, but the nineteenth century was a period of great loss for all native tribes in the area.

It was this discovery of gold that hastened California's statehood. On September 9, 1850, President Fillmore officially made California the thirty-first state.

One thing that helped ease California's isolation was the telegraph. By 1861, telegraph lines stretched across the country. Unfortunately, buffalo on the plains often knocked down the poles, leaving California isolated again until the line was fixed.

The next several decades were marked by the development of the cotton industry and the spread of the Southern plantation system west into Arkansas. Arkansas joined the Confederacy in 1861, but from 1863 the northern part of the state was occupied by Union troops.

The Turn of the Century in California

California had become part of the life of the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century--an exotic land of untold promise on the distant Pacific Coast. At the beginning of the twentieth century, California seemed less exotic, and the land's promises seemed more limited. And these developments resulted from many factors other than the end of the rush for gold and easy mineral wealth.

Much of California's mystery arose from the state's geographical position, a region facing squarely west across the Pacific, with its mountainous "back" turned to the rest of the nation. By 1900, American settlement had filled in the pockets of unmapped land in the Far West. Washington State and Oregon were admitted to the Union, and the Pacific Coast was occupied by three states running south from Canada to Mexico. While a few territories remained to be organized into full-fledged states, the United States could now be truly said to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And Alaska, far to the North on the Pacific Coast, had replaced California as a mysterious frontier land with riches of gold.

Further, the Pacific and the lands west of California were becoming more fully a part of the life of the United States. Trade to Japan and China had been opened in the second half of the nineteenth century. Chinese immigrants and their descendants, once confined entirely to California, were slowly beginning to create "Chinatowns" in cities further east.

Even more important, the United States was assuming responsibility for the government of more and more Asian peoples across that Pacific. The Spanish American War of 1898 left the United States as the custodian of the Philippine Islands. And in 1900, Hawaii, whose population included native tribes and descendants of immigrants from many Asian nations, became the United States' last organized territory. The increased importance of Asia and Asian affairs for the United States was recognized when President Theodore Roosevelt played a key role in mediating the end of a war between Russia and Japan in 1905.

If California had lost much its special nature as America's outpost on the Pacific, the new century also reminded observers around the world that California could no longer be regarded as an uncomplicated paradise of easy living. This lesson was brought home with terrible force on the morning of April 18, 1906, when an earthquake shook the proud city of San Francisco for two full minutes. The quake and the fires that followed for three days left 500 San Franciscans dead and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings--more than a third of the homes, offices, and stores in the entire city.

Although damage was greatest in San Francisco, its effects were felt in every city from San Juan Bautista to the coast at Mendocino. San Francisco would be rebuilt, and Californians would learn to construct homes and stores that could better withstand future disasters. But no one could afford to forget what had happened that week in April, and no one could pretend that California's bountiful natural resources somehow made the state or its residents immune to nature's equally generous capacity to destroy.

California faced the new century with a new maturity and sense of reality earned at a terrible cause.

Today in California

California is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world. The ethnic breakdown of the state's population as of March 2001 is as follows:

American Indian/ Eskimo/ Aleut 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander 12.5%
Black (non-Hispanic) 6.7%
Hispanic 31.5%
Caucasian (non-Hispanic) 48.3%
Among the states, California has the largest number of senior citizens living within its borders. More than four million residents are more than 60 years of age.

For more information on the history of California, visit the following website: California Historical Society

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